Germans in the American Revolutionary War

The Capture of the Hessians at Trenton, December 26, 1776, by John Trumbull
The Capture of the Hessians at Trenton, December 26, 1776, by John Trumbull, shows General Washington ordering medical help for the mortally wounded Hessian Colonel Johann Rall. (Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain)

As Britain fought its rebel American colonists during the American Revolutionary War, it struggled to provide troops for all the theaters it was engaged in. Pressures from France and Spain stretched the small and understrength British army, and as recruits took time to try, this forced the government to explore different sources of men. It was common in the eighteenth century for ‘auxiliary’ forces from one state to fight for another in return for payment, and the British had made heavy use of such arrangements in the past.

After trying, but failing, to secure 20,000 Russian troops, an alternative option was using Germans.

German Auxiliaries

Britain had experience in using troops from the many different German states, especially in creating the Anglo-Hanoverian army during the Seven Years War. Initially, troops from Hanover—connected to Britain by the bloodline of their king—were placed on duty in the Mediterranean islands so their garrisons of regular troops could go to America. By the end of 1776, Britain had agreements in place with six German states to provide auxiliaries, and as most came from Hesse-Cassel, they were often referred to en masse as Hessians, although they were recruited from all across Germany. Nearly 30,000 Germans served in this way during the span of the war, which included both normal line regiments and the elite, and often in demand, Jägers. (Marston, The American Revolution, p. 20) Between 33–37% of the British manpower in the US during the war was German (Atwood, The Hessians, p.

257). In his analysis of the military side of the war, Middlekauff described the possibility of Britain fighting the war without Germans as “unthinkable” (Middlekauff, The Glorious Cause, p. 62).

The German troops ranged greatly in effectiveness and ability. One British commander said the troops from Hesse-Hanau were basically unprepared for the war, while the Jägers were feared by the rebels and praised by the British.

However, the actions of some Germans in plundering—allowing the rebels, who also plundered, a major propaganda coup which caused exaggeration for centuries—further reinforced the considerable numbers of Britons and Americans angry that mercenaries were being used. American anger at the British for bringing in mercenaries was reflected in Jefferson’s first draft of the Declaration of Independence: “At this very time too they are permitting their chief magistrate to send over not only soldiers of our common blood, but Scotch and foreign mercenaries to invade and destroy us.” (Middlekauff, The Glorious Cause, p. 335) Despite this, rebels tried frequently to persuade the Germans to defect, even offering them land.

The Germans at War

The campaign of 1776, the year the Germans arrived, encapsulates the German experience: successful in battles around New York, but made infamous as failures for their loss at the Battle of Trenton, when Washington won a victory vital for rebel morale after the German commander had neglected to build defenses. Indeed, the Germans fought in many places across the US during the war, although there was a tendency later on to sideline them as garrisons or just raiding troops.

They are chiefly remembered, unfairly, for both Trenton and the assault on the fort at Redbank in 1777, which failed due to a mixture of ambition and faulty intelligence. Indeed, Atwood has identified Redwood as the point at which German enthusiasm for the war began to fade. Germans were present in the early campaigns at New York, and they were also present at the end in Yorktown.

Intriguingly, at one point, Lord Barrington advised the British king to offer Prince Ferdinand of Brunswick, the commander of the Anglo-Hanoverian army of the Seven Years War, the post of commander in chief. This was tactfully rejected.

Germans Among the Rebels

There were Germans on the rebels' side among many other nationalities. Some of these were foreign nationals who had volunteered as individuals or small groups.

One notable figure was a buccaneering mercenary and Prussian drill master—Prussia was regarded as having one of the premier European armies—who worked with the continental forces. He was (American) Major-General von Steuben. In addition, the French army which landed under Rochambeau included a unit of Germans, the Royal Deux-Ponts regiment, sent to try and attract deserters from the British mercenaries. (Kennett, The French Forces in America, 1780–1783, p. 22-23)

The American colonists included large numbers of Germans, many of whom had initially been encouraged by William Penn to settle Pennsylvania, as he deliberately tried to attract Europeans who felt persecuted. By 1775, at least 100,000 Germans had entered the colonies, making up a third of Pennsylvania. This stat is cited from Middlekauff, who believed in their abilities so much he called them “the best farmers in the colonies” (Middlekauff, The Glorious Cause, p. 34-5). However, many of the Germans tried to avoid service in the war - some even supported the loyalist caused – but Hibbert is able to refer to a unit of German immigrants who fought for the US forces at Trenton - (Hibbert, Redcoats and Rebels, p. 148) – while Atwood records that “the troops of Steuben and Muhlenberg in the American army” at Yorktown were German. (Atwood, the Hessians, p. 142)